LAST week a delegation of civic and community leaders from across the borough took part in a first-of-its-kind civic trip to Poland to experience and strengthen Bury’s connection to the Holocaust. The Bury Times joined the three-day excursion. BRAD MARSHALL reports.

AFTER a civic welcome in Warsaw’s central district and discussions about strengthening ties between the between Bury, Trafford and Warsaw we began our journey proper, into remembering the Holocaust and the horrors inflicted upon millions at the city’s Jewish cemetery.

Built in 1806, the grave yard was left intact by the invading Nazis who intended to preserve the site as a museum to the destruction of the Jewish people.

Had they won the war and succeeded in their genocides the Nazis meant the cemetery to stand as a lasting reminder that they had eradicated what they deemed an inferior race.

Today the cemetery is home to 320,000 graves, 250,000 marked by beautifully designed headstones bearing Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish inscriptions.

Yet 70,000 victims of the Warsaw Ghetto lie in two mass graves. And it was in the area of the ghetto where we continued our journey.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War Poland was home to around three million Jews, of which around 350,000 lived in Warsaw and made up 30 per cent of the city’s population.

Warsaw’s was the largest Jewish community in Europe, but under German military occupation the city’s Jews and those from surrounding areas were ordered to live in a ghetto.

Sealed off from the rest of the city by a 10 foot wall ringed with barbed wire, more than 400,000 people were crammed into an area of just 1.3 square miles.

Devastating starvation and disease were rife and people were mercilessly exposed to the elements, killing tens of thousands.

In 1942 deportations started to the extermination centres created across Poland by the Nazis, and in April 1943 a large force of SS and police arrived to ultimately liquidate the ghetto’s inhabitants.

However unwilling to give in to their destruction the inhabitants launched an uprising.

Although poorly armed, the insurgents were initially successful and were able to resist the SS and police units for several weeks.

As we walked through the area the ghetto had occupied we traced the movements of the uprising, following the “Heroism Route”, until we reached the last bunker to hold out resistance, known as Mila 18.

At least 7,000 Jews died in the uprising and another 7,000 were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.

In the heart of the former ghetto a monument stands to the uprising’s heroes. Depicting the fighters themselves as well as Jews being deported, the sculpture is a powerful and moving tribute to the bravery shown by thousands of persecuted Jews, and a reminder that heroism in times of absolute darkness takes many forms.

Leaving Warsaw we made our way through the lush Polish countryside and forests to Treblinka.

The camp was one of three constructed in central Poland under Operation Reinhard, a top secret order to undertake the “final solution” and exterminate the Jews in German-occupied territory.

Consisting of little more than a rail platform, barracks complex and gas chambers Treblinka was a factory of death, capable of allowing 2,000 people to be murdered in a single hour. Between 1942 and its closure in 1944 almost 900,000 people were killed.

Polish authorities built a huge memorial in the 1960s with hundreds of stones bearing the names of towns and countries where the victims came in the outline of the camp.

Resembling a harrowing graveyard these stones encircle a monolithic stone arch and black stone sculpture marking the location of the gas chamber and burial pits respectively.

In the still twilight we returned to our coach to drive to Lublin and considered the sobering thought that we walked a return journey many thousands did not.

Calling at an historic Yeshiva, formerly the largest and one of the most prestigious rabbinical schools in the world, we travelled to Majdanek, a sprawling concentration and extermination camp built on the orders of the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.

It was intended to provide slave labour for the German Reich, and was notorious for its brutal living conditions.

Thousands were killed in mass executions, hangings, by phenol injections and being drowned in sewage pits.

Between late 1942 and September 1943 prisoners, mostly Jews, were also sent to gas chambers.

Final liquidation of the camp took place in July 1944 as the Soviet Red Army advanced, when hundreds of prisoners were transferred to other camps, including Auschwitz.

Travelling south we stopped in the village of Markowa, home of the Polish Ulma family of Jozef, Wiktoria and their six children,who sheltered eight Jews during the war.

However in March 1944 they were discovered by the military police who shot all the Poles and Jews ­— including the children and Wiktoria who was in labour with the Ulma’s seventh child.

In 1995 the Ulma’s were posthumously honoured with the Righteous Among the Nations title and a monument now stands in the village to their heroism and selflessness.

Markowa was subsequently chosen to be the home to a Museum of Poles Saving Jews, recognising the role played by Poles, including around 1,000 who were killed by the German for attempting to help Jews.

Continuing we visited Tarnów and the town’s old Jewish district, where defunct painted signs still remain ­— including for a Jewish food store ­— and there stands the little remaining structure of the destroyed synagogue, now a monument.

The town is a beautiful coalescence of Central European architecture lining charming cobbled streets, but it too is scared the horrors of the Holocaust.

There, as in many other places in Poland, a ghetto was established shortly after the German invasion, and in the town square Jewish inhabitants were rounded up the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, and children were executed.

Some 40,000 Jews were imprisoned in the ghetto before the Nazis began carrying out mass executions in the nearby Buczyna forest in June 1942.

As night fell we continued to the forest outside Zbylitowska Góra and perhaps the most solemn and heart-rending moment of our trip.

Known as the Children’s Forest, the area is filled with mass graves, including from the most notorious murder of 6,000 Jews, including 800 children, who were thrown into the pits and killed with hand grenades.

In the black of night, with snow and rain falling we made our way to the graves.

There we held a memorial with each member of our group reading out the name of a child victim of the Holocaust, researched by our guide and sharing a name identical or similar to our own.

In the silent solemnity our guide, Jeremy Kurnedz, the son of a Holocaust survivor, encapsulated our sorrowful remembrance, saying: “Perhaps the heavens are weeping. The weather is appropriate.”

From the forest we made the final leg of our journey to Krakow and to the infamous Auschwitz ­— the largest Nazi death camp where more were killed than at any other.

Krakow has been home to Jews since the 11th century, and by the 14th century a distinct Jewish district, the Kazimierz, was thriving.

At the outbreak of the Second World War tens of thousands of Jews lived in Krakow, making up a quarter of the city’s population.

This population was decimated by the Holocaust and the Krakow Ghetto.

However unlike in many areas of Poland the city’s Jewish community population and culture has slowly rebuilt itself and is once again flourishing.

In the city we visited several synagogues filled with people and the sound of Hebrew prayers ­— including one the of the oldest, the 16th century Remuh Synagogue, and one of the youngest, the Tempel opened in 1862.

Leaving the city behind we journeyed a few short miles east to Oświęcim and made our final stop.

It is said all roads lead to Rome, but in the Nazi Reich all railroads led to Auschwitz. Jews and other persecuted minorities were brought from all over Europe, often travelling for days or weeks, crammed into cattle carts.

The camp was divided into three sections: I an old army barracks initially used to house political prisoners but later expanded, II (Birkenau) the purpose built extermination camp and home to the main gas chambers, and III a series of factories where prisoners were worked to death for some of the world’s largest companies.

In total 1.1 million men, women and children were killed at Auschwitz and to walk the site of incomprehensible evil is an unforgettably horrifying experience.

As we concluded our trip we were left haunted by the sheer brutality, loss and inhumanity inflicted by the Nazi regime, but also the incredible heroism and unbreakable spirit of the Jewish community. We were reminded that we must never forget and commit to the vow of never again.